Fasting


Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

Joel 1: 14

 

Here is a sample of the instruction that this ancient voice of God’s will had for the people of the nation of Judah. There was a good deal more of the same, but these words do express plenty of what God had in mind. This was a time when God’s people had headed off on their own path. They were living out their personal visions for what was right and how justice should be served. There wasn’t much in any of this that could be traced back to God’s law or to His time-proven truths. Now there was truly the Devil to pay. The Lord had removed His protective hand from Judah, and locust have consumed their fields, war has bled their nations youth dry, and now drought is withering away what is left. These are hard times for everyone; so, God sends Joel to cry out to the people to return to their one and only true first love.

 

There is no question that something needs to be done. Navigating those difficult times clearly required strong leadership, and the people who are stepping forward were not taking the nation in a righteous direction. They probably had plans for insect control. There were big ideas about where to go to seek water and grand schemes for raising the funds that these ideas required. They certainly shouted out the need for a larger army with better weapons. There would have been chest thumping and negative comments about the other people who were attempting to gain power and control. In Joel’s days the clothing was different and the means of spreading the word was slower and more face-to-face, but the national atmosphere was not all that different than the ones that we encounter in our world today.

 

It seems that God is telling us to approach our challenges from a different perspective. He wants us to place our trust in the same solutions that were provided for the people of Judah. If they had been paying attention they would have realized that they had never successfully driven off a plague of locust, defended their borders from their strong enemies, or summoned the rain. These were things that God had always done for them. From the beginning of time God has gifted humanity with a national identity, a place to dwell and to plant roots, and the provision of the things that we need to grow and to thrive. God blesses people in these ways as we trust in Him, seek out His will, and choose to live in a just and righteous manner. Joel’s voice seems to cry out across the ages to our times, and he is saying that God is not pleased with our wanton and sinful approach to life. The Lord, God Almighty, is calling to each of us and to our nations with a voice of warning and a promise of salvation. The choice is yours and it is mine. Will we repent and return to the Lord, our rock and our defender?

Yet even now, declares the Lord,

return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

and rend your hearts and not your garments.

Joel 2: 12

 

God is not very demanding in what He asks from His people. The Lord simply wants all of us. He wants the portion of our lives that is dedicated to serving Him to be counted as every hour that we draw breath. God desires that this absolute commitment would be driven by the complete surrender of our hearts to His loving grace. The Lord asks His followers to be all-in all of the time with nothing held back and no reserve.

 

Jesus became God’s perfect demonstration of this when He lived among us as one of us. Christ held nothing back as He followed the Father’s will in everything. His heart was surrendered to God’s will, and God’s love, mercy, and grace poured out of Christ onto the people that He touched. Then He commanded those of us who know Him to go out into our world and to do the same and to do it out of the same motivation. We are to give our lives to Christ as that living sacrifice that Jesus fully embodied.

 

Surrender that is this profound and that empties us of all that we have been requires determination, focus, and an attitude of humility on our parts. It generally occurs at a time when our spirits are broken of our drive to control and to manage our lives. Deep surrender is always an act of worship, and God accepts it and responds to it in that same reverential manner. Our Lord cares for us with all of His great and mighty being. God enters into all aspects of our lives with this same totality of engagement. As we respond to Him with open hands, humble hearts, and confession on our lips; Christ pours Himself into us and His Spirit provides all of the love and the strength that we will need to live today as a person whose heart is fully committed to serving the Lord.

For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;

you are exalted far above all gods.

Psalm 97: 9

 

It is valid to ask the question, “Who and what do I lift up to the very pinnacle of my admiration and adoration?” The correct answer comes back, “God, of course!” Yet, honesty, and the prodding of that thing that we call conscience which I think is actually the Holy Spirit speaking God’s word of truth to my heart and mind, says otherwise. For the object of my affections, the focal point of my gaze, is too often something or someone else.

 

There are many hours in my days when I am intent on doing what I believe is the right or the best thing to do. Yet, the definition of right and best is one that is of my own choosing, and it is crafted out of a worldly culture of self-fulfillment with its own set of priorities and loyalties. This world’s kitchen is a place where a thick and seemingly hearty stew of achievement, wealth, power, and pleasure is always brewing on the stove. I know that I tend to go there and to taste the easily available broth when the Lord has provided a far healthier diet for me to consume.

 

God desires that I would turn to Him and give to Him all of my worship and praise. The Lord is above all else. That means that He is the source, the origin, and the provider of everything that is valuable and necessary for living my life today and every other day. If achievement is to be mine, if wealth or power or pleasure, these all come from God’s hand and out of His gracious will. As I turn my focus to God in reading His Word, in meditation on it and on Him, in prayer and fasting, and in submission to His will revealed; He grants understanding to my mind and He strengthens my heart so that I can stay true to His path through today.

 

I am in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

John 17: 23

On some days I feel generally out of sorts and disconnected. Simple things become irritating, and innocent words or actions of others become sinister or at least filled with hurtful intent. Now most of the time I can quickly sift the truth and the reality out from the self-based emotional responses. However, some of the time the cloud of ill-functioning feeling and thinking just sticks with me and is very hard to escape. These days are hard to get through. The act of moving ahead and of acting normal consumes a very great amount of energy. On these days hurts become magnified, and my tendency is to turn inward and to become self- absorbed; thus, the negativity feeds itself.

It is my suspicion that I am not alone or singular in my experience of this sort of emotional reality. My own reactions to situations and to people, when viewed from the perspective of the calm after the storm, explain the ways that others respond to various situations from time to time. Although Jesus is not speaking specifically to this sort of thing in His words here, the ideas that He gives to us do seem to apply to these difficult times in life. In this prayerful portion of the Upper Room Discourse Jesus is addressing God, the Father. Christ says that the Father is in Him and that He, Christ, is in His followers, us. This is basic, fundamental Christian thinking. His next words are powerful. Christ says that a goal or an intent of His dwelling in us is that we would become perfect which in this setting does not mean morally or ethically correct but does mean that we would become fully formed, grown up, into people who act and think like Christ.

This is helpful to me in dealing with my responses to life. Jesus grants to me a perspective that can change this dysfunctional aspect of my existence into something that actually brings me closer to Him and deeper into the relationships that I encounter on a daily basis. I believe that Christ would have me set aside the negativity and the doubt that mark these hard days with the realization that they are the product of my old self. Christ’s love, which is the same love as that which God gives, is poured out on and into me. It is a love that He would have me apply to all of the interactions that I enter into. It is the love that Christ has granted to me as the foundation upon which I should view all people. This love is what brings me into that state of perfect maturity in Christ, and it is that state of maturity that makes logical sense of life’s emotionally and challenging moments.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Acts 13: 2

 

Although it is by no means a practice that is mentioned frequently in the Bible, fasting is clearly connected to prayer on a number of occasions. It was something that God’s people had done from very early times, and it appears to have been something that was engaged in as a normal part of seeking the Lord’s wisdom and leading by the participants in the newly formed Christian church of the first century. Fasting, as discussed here, involved a commitment to stop eating and probably to also stop consuming fluids for a period of time while engaging in focused and intensive prayer. These were times when the people needed the Lord to speak and to provide them with His wise direction or when they desired for God to take action that was beyond their doing. Despite the fact that there is not much recorded about the nature of the practice in the early church, it seems clear that they took fasting very seriously.

 

It seems to me that the idea of fasting goes far beyond being hungry. Yet it is totally about hunger, and that idea encompasses fasting from food and all other forms of abstinence or refrain that are dedicated to the Lord as a form of fast. Fasting is a commitment of our bodies to a time of concentrated communication with God. It is a practice in which we purposefully empty ourselves, yield control, and lay our comfort on the altar of grace. In my understanding, it should not be an ecstatic practice in which hunger and thirst are used as a physical means to enter into an altered state of being or consciousness. If true hunger and especially thirst have reached that point, the practice is potentially dangerous to one’s health and the focus has shifted away from God’s voice and onto self. Fasting is best when carried out privately and personally or with a small group of like-committed followers of Christ. The point of this is to resist the temptation to make it an act that makes a public statement as this inevitably points toward the person and distracts everyone away from waiting on the Lord.

 

As we can see from the example of the early church, fasting is not a somber event. They were engaged in worship while they fasted. The strength that they needed to engage in the singing of songs, praying, sharing God’s Word, perhaps doing a little holy dancing, and all of the rest of the activity that was worship came from God and was provided by and through Christ’s Spirit. When we enter into a time of fasting, the point is, in fact, to become increasingly hungry. Yet, the hunger that should be desired is that of the person who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” as this is a state of being that God reaches into and fills with His holiness. Here, in the midst of the fast, we will be fed as our souls are seated at the banquet table of Christ’s love, truth, and grace.

I proclaimed a fast there at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.

Ezra 8: 21

It would be fair to ask about what a story that relates how a group of people who lived long before anyone that I ever met making a decision to go without food while they camped by the side of some strange river in what would today be Iraq has to do with the day that I am about to have. That would be a reasonable question. When Ezra was preparing to travel from the land of captivity back to Jerusalem, he knew that he and all of those who were with him would need to be clear about what they were doing, for they were as human as you and I. Thus, they were certainly going to encounter stresses, distractions, and lose heart for the travel and for the work ahead, too.

So, Ezra stopped all of the preparations for the trip, called everyone together, and led them in a time of deep reflection on their own relationships with God. They joined together in a process of quietly listening to the Lord’s voice as He provided them with instruction, direction, and encouragement for the days ahead. The act of fasting isn’t about going hungry or even specifically about sacrifice. It is done in order to set aside all of the routine, the usual, and the common things of life that can consume most of our attention and energy so that we can focus totally on God and on His desire for us. It takes real humility to recognize the need for the Lord’s step-by-step involvement in each day of our life’s journey. Yet, when I am humble before God, my heart hears Him more clearly, and I am most ready to yield my will to His.

It is hard to schedule this act of setting aside the necessary routine of living and of purposefully and humbly yielding my plans and desires to the direction of the Lord. There always seems to be something important to do and urgent places to go. However, doing it results in a day that is driven by the orderly purpose of God where His strong will overcomes my distraction, confusion, and uncertainty. Perhaps the most important item on my daily calendar is the time that I take to separate myself from all of the urgent tasks of my life and open my heart and my mind to receive my Lord’s true focus for this day. This is a time when God’s safe route for this day’s journey is made clear.